REBELLION AND ANARCHY. That's how some in the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church are describing the verdict in a church trial in the UMC's largely ultra-liberal Pacific Northwest regional conference.
After deliberating for more than 10 hours at a church in suburban Seattle, a jury of clergy voted 11-0, with two abstentions, to dismiss charges against Karen Dammann, 47, a self-avowed lesbian minister on leave from her church.
The acquittal in effect nullified church law in her case. The UMC Book of Discipline requires UMC clergy to "maintain the highest standards of holy living." It goes on to say, "Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve" in the UMC. By more than a 2 to 1 margin, delegates to the last two quadrennial UMC general conferences voted to retain the language.
Rev. Dammann in 2001 professed her homosexuality to her bishop and fellow clergy, and said she had been living in a relationship with another woman since 1996. Church prosecutor James Finkbeiner, who called only one witness, reminded the jury that Rev. Dammann was on trial, not the church's law. Jurors took issue with the law anyway, agreeing with several liberal bishops that the Book of Discipline really didn't "declare" homosexual practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Jurors also said they were bound by the church's Social Principles supporting gay rights and liberties. The case was really about inclusiveness and justice, not church law, some insisted.
Afterward, prosecutor Finkbeiner said the jury was "out of bounds" in its ruling. But personally, he added, "I'm glad I lost."
In proceedings initiated by Bishop Elias Galvan earlier, conference panels twice had dismissed charges against Rev. Dammann. But the UMC's Judicial Council-the Supreme Court of the Nashville-based UMC-ordered the regional conference to bring her to trial. It also excluded from the jury anyone who couldn't vote to find Ms. Dammann guilty of violating church law.
The denomination can't appeal the ruling in the trial.
Reactions came swiftly. Maxie Dunham, president of Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and a leader of UMC conservatives, exclaimed: "How can there not be a guilty verdict when what she's done is public and she has confessed it?" He warned it could lead to schism. "We can't continue to live with a whole segment of the church that's deliberately disobeying the church's law."
UMC evangelist Wesley Putnam said those who are in fundamental disagreement with the denomination and are unwilling to abide by the rule of Scripture and the Discipline should "plan their exit now.... Make it official: go in peace."
Rev. James Heidinger of Good News, an evangelical caucus in the UMC, called the decision "incredibly irresponsible" and an "embarrassment" to the entire denomination. A Good News statement accused the Pacific Northwest conference of having "broken covenant" with the UMC.
The next UMC quadrennial General Conference-the church's highest policy-making body-will convene in Pittsburgh on April 27. It promises to be a contentious 11 days for the some 1,000 delegates.
Even Rev. Dammann acknowledges that the verdict in her case "means a beginning of another stage of struggles" for the UMC. Meanwhile, she began another stage in her life as a gay activist: A week before the trial, she and her partner, Meredith Savage, traveled to Portland, Ore., to be "married."